Beyond the binge in ‘booze Britain’: market-led liminalization and the spectacle of binge drinking




The contemporary night-time economy has transformed British town centres into liminal spaces where transgression does not subvert normative space, but establishes public drunkenness as integral to a negotiated order. The focus of this paper is the wider dialectic surrounding contemporary ‘binge drinking’, and in particular the relationship between aesthetic processes aimed at encouraging alcohol-related excitement and excess, and those that seek to exert a measure of rational control over the drink ‘problem’. It is the logic of the market that informs governmental policy on alcohol, and the binge drinker is central to the spectacle of the night-time economy as a form of self gratification which also embodies forms of repression.

. . . at a few minutes before eleven o'clock I found the pavement before every gin-shop crowded . . . the gin-shops sent forth their multitudes, swearing and fighting and brawling obscenely; some were stretched on the pavement insensibly drunk, while every few steps the footway was taken up by drunken wretches being dragged to the station-house by the police. (A firsthand account of a London street scene from James Silk Buckingham's Parliamentary Report on ‘The Problem of Drunkenness Among the Urban Poor’ 1834)

But things are really going to start heating up come the weekend of 26th and 27th of November because 24 hour drinking will have just hit the UK streets. We're dedicating the entire weekend to the alcohol fuelled mayhem that 24/7 booze will bring, including a specially recorded show from the first night of no time at the bar. (Booze Britain 2: Binge Nation.


One of the most popular shows on UK satellite TV station Bravo is the documentary series Booze Britain 2: Binge Nation. Employing the type of crypto-reportage that is the signature style of so-called ‘reality TV’, Booze Britain 2 aims to ‘take the viewer inside Britain's binge culture’ by filming various UK city centres during peak weekend drinking hours. Each episode follows a formulaic dual narrative. On the one hand, film-makers trail around a group of friends (usually, but by no means always male) as they set out on a night of intoxication. Typically, this entails a series of drinking games at a private residence before the group heads out on a pub and club crawl of heroic proportions. One group of 12 young males, for example, the hapless ‘Friday Night Club’, were filmed as they consumed a massive 768 units of alcohol in only seven hours – the equivalent, we are told, of half a year's Recommended Daily Allowance. On the other hand, Booze Britain 2 is keen to promote the cause of the various public service agencies whose job it is to maintain order in the night-time economy (NTE). Thus we see the filmmakers riding along with paramedic teams or interviewing police officers as they struggle through the night shift.

Our interest here is with the way this dual narrative mirrors the wider dialectic surrounding contemporary ‘binge’ drinking. We refer here to the relationship between aesthetic processes aimed at encouraging alcohol-related excitement and excess, and those that seek to exert a measure of rational control over the drink ‘problem’. Consider, then, the irreconcilably dyadic positions adopted by the producers of Booze Britain 2. While it is never made clear whether or not they are actually footing the bill for these televised drinking sprees, they are unquestionably guilty of an incitement to excess– in many cases resulting in physical illness and injury. In this sense the visceral footage that drives Booze Britain 2 and similar shows simply reproduces the logic of a contemporary market place that has transformed our town centres into liminal spaces in which individuals are encouraged to play with the parameters of excitement and excess (Hobbs et al. 2000, 2003). At the same time, of course, the film-makers are keen to disavow their own role as facilitators and enablers of these practices, choosing instead to occupy the ideological and moral high ground by empathizing and identifying with the forces of law, order and control; forces which themselves have been co-opted and compromised by the continued roll out of neo-liberal forms of inter-agency urban governmentality. This ‘mixed social control economy of informal and formal, private and public’ (South 2001: 261), utilizes the late night morality plays of Booze Britain 2 and its ilk, ‘to point the finger at the consumer . . . to “blame the victim” ’ (Ritzer 2001: 235). Drunkenness and violence in the NTE is therefore not a dramatic subversion of space (Tonkiss 2004), but a pathologizing rendition of the transgressive dynamics of the NTE that utilizes thespectacle of public drunkenness as a cautionary, yet seductive tale. It is our contention that this dual logic epitomizes current state strategies regarding the NTE, and in particular New Labour's problematic relationship with the UK drinks industry.

Marketized liminality

The British Labour Party signalled its intention to embrace the NTE during the 1997 General Election campaign, when they enthusiastically solicited the student vote with the following text message: ‘Cldnt gve a XXXX 4 lst ordrs? Thn vte Labr on thrsday 4 extra time’. As the new decade progressed, the real story behind Prime Minister Blair's ‘24 hour society’ began to emerge. Highly concentrated numbers of young alcohol consumers created environments where aggressive hedonism and disorder were the order of the day (Hadfield 2006; Hobbs et al. 2000, 2003; Measham 2004b; Plant and Plant 2006).1

Initially, the Government's strategy was straightforward: to develop the tourist, retail, hospitality and leisure industries and remove ‘red tape’ for businesses by introducing relaxed trading hours under the dual guise of Europeanization and urban regeneration (DCMS 2004: 4. See Hadfield 2006: ch. 1).2 Despite its powerful and costly insistence upon ‘evidence-based’ policymaking, the government could muster only one (drinks-industry funded) piece of research to back their claims that there were crime prevention returns to be gained from the liberalization of closing times (Home Office 2000; see Marsh and Fox-Kibby 1992). Indeed, as Hadfield (2006 chs 1 and 7) skilfully and persuasively illustrates, the entire research community was opposed to the 2003 Licensing Act. Despite strong evidence that a reduction in alcohol-related harm is more likely to be achieved by imposing a more extensive, rather than a reduced amount of supply side controls (see Academy of Medical Sciences 2004; Babor et al. 2003; Hobbs et al. 2003; Room 2004), the government's agenda of market-led liberalization of the retailing of alcohol continued unabated. As one expert involved in the pre Act consultation process explained: ‘All they wanted to do was keep the drinks industry happy and excise levels stable’ (Edwards et al. cited in Hadfield 2006: 5). The rapid evolution of the NTE should thus be understood as an attempt to fill the void left by Britain's decaying manufacturing base, as well as its commercial underpinnings that were once symbols of industrial, urban and municipal authority (Hobbs et al. 2003: 35). This emptying out of the post-industrial city (Kowinski 1985), hastened the transition from urban spaces based around production to those based around consumption (Hannigan 1998; Zukin 1991), and was enthusiastically supported, and frequently underwritten, by the rampant forces of neo-liberalism. True to their word, the Labour Party had, by November of 2005, operationalized their infamous text message.

However, there was a problem: within these neon-bathed citadels of corralled and commercialized pleasure, violence and disorder quickly emerged as routine components of Britain's spectacular NTE (Hobbs et al. 2005). Not only did three quarters of local governments report that alcohol was related to public order problems (Home Office 2001: 1), but police data revealed that violent ‘hot spots’ were overwhelmingly distributed among concentrations of licensed premises. The relationship between the NTE and increased violence and disorder was irrefutable to all but the government and the alcohol industry (see Hutchinson et al. 1998; Homel, Tomsen and Thommeny 1991; Langley, Wagenaar and Begg 1996; Graham and West 2001; Bushman 1997; Lipsey et al. 1997; Homel and Clark 1994). Yet, rather than reject a major facet of their own economic policies, and acknowledge the NTE as a criminogenic zone that was negatively impacting upon their own crime and social order targets, the Labour Party instead constructed official discourses that zoned in on the problematic consumer (Hadfield 2006: 152–6, 261–2; Ritzer 2001: 233–5). Enter the tired and emotional figure of the so-called ‘binge’ drinker (Best 1990).

The Government's discovery of the ‘binge’ drinker coincided with the wider recognition that all was not well with Britain's NTE,3 and although public inebriety – especially with regard to youth crime and disorder – was a recurring theme in media coverage during the latter part of the last century (see e.g. Cohen 1972; Redhead 1997), these concerns were in large part a product of heightened anxiety about the changing nature of male youth subcultures, especially in the context of the shifting post-industrial urban landscape (Hall and Jefferson 1977; Willis 1977). What is interesting to note today, however, is that, whilst concern about youth culture and alcohol still endures (e.g. Newburn and Shiner 2001; Richardson and Budd 2003), the discourse surrounding the contemporary ‘binge drinker’ is far more inclusive. Consider, for example, questions about class – once the primary operationalizing concept for studies of urban youth in transition. Clearly class is not erased from the strategic creation and placement of venues within the NTE. Rather it is subsumed as an unspoken category of consumption which, ironically, reverses liberal assumptions regarding exclusion. In particular the NTE poses problems for orthodox liberal stances on seduction/repression and domination (Bauman 1992: 105). This orthodoxy is rooted upon assumptions of consumption based upon critiques of Fordism that equate consumption with, ‘. . . the acquisition of material goods and private property’ (Hobbs et al. 2003: 273). With youthful alcohol consumption removed from its local bastions in the industrial neighbourhood, and placed in a complex environment of experiential consumption (Hadfield 2006: 39–78), where class can be shrouded by the spectacular aesthetics of the goods on offer, class relations, or more specifically, class differences, are not easily unpacked (Winlow and Hall 2006). Six pints of lager or a bottle of champagne can produce a transgressive pharmacological and cultural nexus that is not class specific. Consequently, binge drinking and its associated transgressions are not linked explicitly to class or to the influence of any particular subcultural style, rather such behaviour is portrayed within the media as almost the default setting for all young people – including, increasingly, young females (Measham 1996; Measham and Brain 2005).

The utility of the status of binge drinker shrouds class differentials and provides an encompassing narrative whose power lies in a vagueness that can be traced to a series of contradictory quasi-medical pronouncements (Murgraff, Parrott and Bennett 1999). For instance, one Home Office publication described a ‘binge drinker’ as someone who reported ‘feeling very drunk once a month’ (Richardson and Budd 2003), while at the other end of the scale a clinical definition describes drinking over a day or more until unconscious (Newburn and Shiner 2001). The government defines a binge drinker as someone who drinks double the RDA at least once a week. The RDA for men is a maximum of four units, and for women, a maximum of three. Pragmatically, this defines that a man who has three pints of premium lager during one, perhaps quite long night out is, officially, a ‘binge drinker’. Similarly, a female who drinks three (standard) glasses of wine in one night is ‘on a binge’.4 Such confusion is problematic not only because it provides soft copy for journalists who use these ambiguous indices to ratchet up fear, paranoia, and moral indignation about Britain's so-called ‘binge culture’. But, more importantly, because it hampers more systematic sociological analyses of changing patterns of weekly alcohol consumption; in so doing further reducing any possibility of an impartial debate about the real issues raised by excess sessional drinking.

While confusion may reign about exactly what constitutes a ‘binge drinker’, few would argue that over the last ten years urban Britain has been dramatically transformed by significant increases in the sessional consumption of alcohol (Plant and Plant 2006). For many, these qualitative and quantitative shifts in the sessional consumption of alcohol represent the onset of a new and distinct ‘postmodern alcohol order’ (Brain 2000; Measham and Brain 2005: 276).

As Measham and Brain argue, the recent penchant for increased sessional consumption should be understood in part as a consequence of the ‘hedonistic cultures’ and related marketing strategies surrounding the UK dance and drug scene of the late 1980s and 1990s (see relatedly O'Malley and Valverde 2004). They argue that ‘the normalization of recreational drug use reflected the development of new psychoactive consumption styles and evidence of a new willingness to experiment with and experience altered states of intoxication as part of a leisure “time out” ’ (Measham and Brain 2005: 266; see also Silcott 2000; Hobbs et al. 2003: ch. 7). Free market rhetoric regarding the expression of freedom and choice is of course a convenient vehicle for liminal experimentation in the NTE. Indeed contemporary marketing strategies actively encourage experiential transgression (Hobbs et al. 2000; Hayward 2004: 158–79). Certainly alcohol has recently been ‘repositioned’ so that it might directly compete with the increasingly commercialized ‘dance scene’ (Measham 2004a, 2004b). Consequently, as well as an increase in the number of licensed premises there is now a clear change in the character and market profile of existing premises. While some commentators have argued for a mixed NTE utilizing small-scale predominantly local nightlife ‘producers’ to cater for a wide range of consumers (Hollands 1995; Chatterton and Hollands 2003), it is clear that – in urban centres at least –‘traditional’ pubs that cater for a wide age profile have become increasingly rare, replaced by national chains of youth-orientated venues, stripped of such unnecessary encumbrances as tables and chairs, in a bid to maximize capacity (Chatterton and Hollands 2003; Hadfield 2006). Alongside such radical alterations to the built environment of boozing is the development of extra strength lagers and ciders, including the emergence of ‘ice’ and ‘premium’ beers; the development in turn of ‘alcopops’, RTDs (ready-to-drink spirit mixers), FABs (flavoured alcoholic beverages), and latterly ‘shooters’ and stimulant-rich ‘buzz drinks’– all of which, according to Measham and Brain, were designed specifically to appeal to a ‘new generation of psychoactive consumers’ (2005: 267).

As a consequence of these changes, the city at night has become a spatial and temporal location where the routine restraints of the day are supplanted by a mélange of excitement, uncertainty and pleasure (Turner 1967, 1969). As we explain in our later arguments regarding consumerism, we regard these locations as constituting much more than the provision of enabling environments for time honoured rites of passage (Hollands 1995). The contemporary NTE is no longer an adjunct to the central economic concerns of the city (Hobbs et al. 2000), where the pub was at best a haven from oppressive work and domestic squalor (Bailey 1978: 10), and at worst a site of cumulative behaviours likely to be counterproductive to the industrial project (Harrison 1994: 41). The regeneration of ex industrial city centres in particular (Hobbs et al. 2003: 13–50), has compressed alcohol outlets (Maguire and Nettleton 2003), enlarged the capacity of pubs, bars and clubs (Chatterton and Hollands 2003), and, in restructuring after dark city centre usage to sites of predominantly youthful consumption of alcohol and its ancillary services such as fast food outlets and taxi services (Hadfield 2006), has made all but the larger more diverse UK city centres reliant upon collaborations between local government and the alcohol industry for its economic well being.5 The NTE in Britain does not feature a wide range of cultural options, particularly in its provincial manifestations, where the remnants of industrial regimes reliant upon a narrow production base were often left unoccupied for decades (Hobbs et al. 2003: 51–108).

This economic shift, and its resultant ‘market-led monoculture of theme bars, branded pubs and fast-food outlets’ (Hobbs et al. 2003: 245), necessitates at its very core the marketing of the relaxation of day-time associated moderation. The routinization of this slackening of self-discipline and restraint (Turner 1969: 80), fabricates a zoning of time and space (Giddens 1984: 119), and creates designated zones of patterned liminality. In turn these zones have come, in the context of a declining manufacturing era, to represent in spectacular form ‘. . . the perfect image of the ruling economic order, ends are nothing and development is all – although the only thing into which the spectacle plans to develop is itself’ (Debord 1994: 15–16). It is vital therefore, that the spacialization of British high streets into liminal zones should not be misread as spontaneous manifestations of the carnivalesque. Rather, it constitutes a ‘fully equipped block of time’ (Debord 1994: 111), a distinctly corporate manifestation of marketized forms of distinction that serve to reinforce, rather than eliminate the normative order, enabling ‘. . . leisure (to) enter into the division of social labour’ (Lefebvre 1976: 84).

Purely structural or economic analyses of the NTE, however, can only take us so far. One must also undertake a close consideration of related cultural transformations, most obviously an analysis of a ‘broader attitudinal change in terms of the culturally acceptable and desirable state of intoxication’ (Measham and Brain 2005: 268). Measham and Brain found that the vast majority of their sample (n 351) conceived of their nights out not just in terms of drinking, but the systematic search to get drunk, and that key individual and social restraints that had previously acted as disinhibitors to public drunkenness were now ‘notably absent’ from their findings. Such search for oblivion is exemplified by Dan (22), one of the revelers featured in the aforementioned Booze Britain 2, who, when asked his goal for the forthcoming evening, replied simply: ‘To get leathered, go out and cause mayhem’.

The place myth of the carnival, then, is central to the continued allure of the high street on a Friday and Saturday night, and the social co-ordination of the NTE must remain covert if the myth of liminality and free play is to be maintained (see Shields 1991: 73–116). It is the money economy that shapes the moral economy of the night, where liminality has been ‘thoroughly domesticated, even corralled’ (Turner 1974: 254), creating a routinized festival designed ‘. . . for the circulation of wealth, of the most important trading, [and] of prestige gained through the distribution of accumulated reserves’ (Caillois 1959: 123–6). In short, as an inevitable product of the liminal night, ‘binge drinking’ must be set against the wider backcloth of the transition to consumer society, and more specifically what Measham and Brain (2005: 275) describe as ‘the exploitation of hedonism’. It is our contention that this latter point is most significant. The leisure zones of the NTE, are above all sites of consumption, and most explicitly of youthful exploration of consumption (Presdee 2000; Hayward 2004: 187–95), where engagement with the commodified hyper-reality of the NTE becomes, ‘. . . a way of enacting an identity’ (Chaney 1994: 177; see also Miles 1998; Winlow and Hall 2006) and of ‘exerting control’ in increasingly socially precarious lifeworlds (Hayward 2004: 16).

With the products of economic activity becoming increasingly semiotic and aesthetic, (Baudrillard 1968; Lash and Urry 1994; Featherstone 1991), the reinvention of Western cities as sites of consumption and leisure provides the contemporary context for the traditional ‘liminal masquerade’ (Turner 1974: 243). When this masquerade is strengthened by huge capital investment, liminal tradition becomes harnessed, converting, ‘spontaneous manifestations of communitas into institutionalized structure’ (Turner 1974: 248). Consequently, via the reality of consumption, rather than the illusion of carnival, alcohol based liminal zones constitute the context for the new ‘post-modern alcohol order’ (Brain 2000). This, in turn, suggests that the current media coverage of ‘binge’ drinking is more than simply a reinvention of the longstanding ‘problem’ of British drunkenness’.6 Indeed the normalization of drunken comportment, and the economic conformity that accompanies it via consumption, suggests that, ‘transgression itself is . . . brought back into line and offered up as a package of commodified contentment’ (Osborne and Rose 1999: 757; Hayward 2004: 166–76). Despite the sirens, vomiting and inevitable hand wringing that accompanies ‘Booze Britain’, the cumulative behaviour of the young drunk population of Britain's ‘night-time high-streets’ (Hadfield 2006) constitute, ‘not inversions of the social order but mirrors of it’ (Schechner 1993: 48).

Consumer culture and warp speed intoxication

We can no longer assume that the state will regulate the behaviour of its citizens in accord with the demands of regimes of industrial production (see Chatterton and Hollands 2001: 114). Unlike during the Fordist era, where consumption of alcohol was regarded as threatening to the production process (Hobbs et al. 2003: 53–67), for the state to now intervene in the contemporary NTE would be to interfere with patterns of consumption, and therefore to inhibit capital accumulation. Throughout history the insatiability of desire has been regarded as a symptom of a certain moral pathology (be it sin or decadence) or as a sign of status amongst social elites. A unique feature of late modern consumer culture, however, is that insatiable desire is now not only normal but essential for the continuance of the socio-economic order (Baudrillard 1996; Lury 1996; Bauman 1998). In our analysis we regard drinking alcohol within the ever expanding frontiers of the NTE as an essential part of contemporary consumer culture (Winlow and Hall 2006), and, the ‘very essence’ of contemporary consumption is that it is ‘an activity which involves an apparently endless pursuit of want’ (Campbell 1989: 37). A central feature of the NTE, therefore, is the production of subjects who are constantly on the look out for new commodities and alternative experiences – what Campbell refers to as ‘neophiliacs’ or lovers of novelty. Consumerism is a culture of ‘supra-individuality’ (Frisby, 1984: 98), experimentation and, ironically given the perceived ‘benefits’ it brings, a culture of terminal dissatisfaction. A world where the pursuit of the new (now combined with the ideology of ‘personal growth’) is valued above a more guarded satisfaction with what one has or is (see O'Malley 1993). Such a search for instantaneous experiences has real consequences, not least in terms of attitudes towards social practices such as alcohol and drug use; activities, which, by their very nature, often involve an expressive dimension in the search for a ‘limit experience’.

As ‘sensation-gatherers’ (Bauman 1997: 146) consumers in the NTE characterize this peculiarly ‘postmodern’ form of subjectivity. The deregulation and privatization of desire that typifies the NTE has made redundant the ‘soldier-producer’ of industrial capitalism, who has been supplanted by a different type of subject, a consumer who constantly craves new experience. The emotions constitutive of the ‘sensation-gatherer’: impulsivity, dissatisfaction, narcissism and spontaneity, are all features of youthful consumers in the NTE not least because it is this group that is exposed to the most aggressive forms of so-called ‘lifestyle advertising’ (Fenwick and Hayward 2000: 40–1).

In addition to propagating insatiability, consumer culture (particularly in the form represented in the NTE) also cultivates a desire for immediate, rather than delayed, gratification (Hayward 2004: 176–9; Hayward 2007; see also Campbell 1995: 118 on ‘mentalistic hedonism’). From the Lottery to Loaded magazine, from digitized ‘sales loops’ to the expansion of credit facilities, we are, at a societal level, increasingly encouraged to eschew long-term conservatism and pursue instead a course toward individual instant gratification, located as sources of pleasure and identity, and typified in the inevitable production of intoxication. Certainly in terms of this specifically alcohol-based economy, ‘consumption has precedence over accumulation’, ‘where forward flight, forced investment, speeded-up consumption and the absurdity of saving provide the motors of our whole present system of buying first and paying off later’ (Baudrillard 1996: 163).

Whereas in the past, personal identity was forged through a ‘temporal unification of the past and the future with the present before me’, the privileging of the present associated with consumerism, cultivates ‘an inability to unify the past, present and future of our own biographical experience of psychic life’ (Jameson 1991: 26). Thus, for many individuals, experience is now frequently reduced to ‘a series of pure and unrelated presents’– a series of ‘nows’. As for the past, so for the future: the idea of saving, of any sort of postponement predicated on an expected future, becomes meaningless. This is not a moral issue of those who choose to ‘flout’ the long-term view (see Wilson 1985: 237–8). Rather, it is simply to suggest that, as a consequence of the bombardment of stimuli associated with today's late modern spaces/cultures, the experience of the present (the immediate) becomes overwhelmingly vivid and intense:

The image, the appearance, the spectacle can all be experienced with an intensity (joy or terror) made possible by their appreciation as pure and unrelated presents in time. So what does it matter ‘if the world thereby momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density’ (Jameson 1991). The immediacy of events, the sensationalism of the spectacle (political, scientific, military, as well as those of entertainment), become the stuff of which consciousness is forged. (Harvey 1990: 54)

The NTE fulfils this brief by appearing to locate itself in the void between the past and a spectacular present whose function is the ‘arousing of new desires’ amongst consumers, which has replaced ‘normative regulation’ (Bauman 1997: 146). The NTE offers something very different from the clustering of Victorian and Edwardian public houses that dominated the industrial city (Clark 1983; Gutzke 2006). Youthful consumers in the NTE, find themselves inhabiting a world where the protocols of the day are abandoned (Hobbs et al. 2000), where normative systems of comportment are temporally repressed during the search for excitement and stimulation (Morrison 1995: 309–10. Winlow and Hall 2006). Young people are deliberately and shrewdly targeted by the national chains of bars that now dominate the night-time high street (Chatterton and Hollands 2003; Mintel 2002), and with its particular emphasis on the ‘new’ and the ‘now’, this segment of hedonistic consumer culture separates young people from the consequences of their actions and makes them more likely to engage in a pursuit of excitement – binge drinking being an obvious example – which may well be reckless and damaging both to themselves and to others.

This constitutes a ‘calculating hedonism’ (Featherstone 1994); a form of liminal experience in which the individual strategically moves in and out of control, enjoying the thrill of the controlled suspension of constraints. Featherstone asserts that this calculated capacity to involve and then detach oneself from objects and people is an important aspect of consumer culture, and one that we believe is useful in helping account for the current popularity of ‘binge’ drinking. Importantly, ‘the idea of ‘calculated decontrol’ should not be equated with losing control, but to the capacity of the post-modern subject to strategically ‘de-control’ the emotions – to be open to an extended range of sensations and to enjoy shifting between the pleasures of attachment and of detached distance’ (Fenwick and Hayward 2000: 46).

This slippage between control and chaos is also evident in Lyng's (1990: 2004) concept of ‘edgework’, in which he attempts to conceptualize the existential nature of voluntary risk-taking. This strategic de-control in which an individual places him/herself in potentially hazardous situations can be observed by fellow consumers in the NTE, and by viewers of Booze Britain 2 alike.7 Being drunk, particularly while moving around within the chaotic and risky terrains that constitute the public spaces linking the multiple alcohol outlets of the contemporary NTE, is a seductive yet strategic choice. The seductiveness of binge drinking, certainly within the context of the NTE, is not only linked to the inherent excitement of the alcoholic rush, but also to the more general feelings of self-actualization and self-expression to which it also gives rise. It is a means of seizing control, a way of reacting against the ‘unidentifiable forces that rob one of individual choice’ (Lyng 1990: 870).

Such thinking is particularly interesting when one considers the fact that, one of the strange paradoxes of consumer society is how, in the same moment, an individual can feel both ontologically insecure and – as a result of the increasing drive within everyday life towards the rationalization of society – over controlled. In other words, not only is it becoming more difficult to exert control and navigate a life pathway via the ‘established’ (and crumbling) norms and codes of modernity but, at the same time, the individual is confronted by a reactive and burgeoning ‘culture of control’ (Garland 2001), whether in the form of state-imposed criminal legislation and other modes of rationalization or private, decentralized, forms of surveillance and other techniques. ‘Given such circumstances, might it not be the case that many individuals will wish to escape this conflicting situation by experiencing a ‘controlled loss of control’– to feel alive in an over-controlled yet at the same time highly unstable world’ (Hayward 2004: 163)? It might be an unpalatable thought, but ‘binge’ drinking becomes attractive to many precisely because it offers seductive forms of excitement that represent a break with the banalities of everyday life and mark an entry into a new world of possibilities and pleasures, whilst simultaneously contributing to the economy and proving oneself to be a competent consumer. In a culture which encourages this strange combination of perpetual dissatisfaction and a longing for the new, it is hardly surprising that so many young people, irrespective of class, are seduced by the existential possibilities offered by ‘warp speed intoxication’, as the sensations created contrast so sharply with the routine of their everyday lives.

Booze is the business, and business is good

As we suggest above, this ‘controlled loss of control’ features not only elements of self volition and constraint, but increasing forms of control emanating from corporate manipulation of youthful liminal drives. However, purely cultural explanations are insufficient, and one must also factor in the effect of the 1989 alcohol legislation.8 While the aim of this legislation was to challenge the anti-competitive structure of the drinks industry by restricting the number of licensed premises that could be owned by an individual brewer, it failed to make any stipulations about the size of these premises. Consequently the size of alcohol outlets grew, affording the new operators who took over from the existing brewers the opportunity and scope to ‘re-engineer’ the industry (Campbell 2005: 756), just at the point when youthful demand, was changing as a result of the influence of drug markets and new patterns of youth leisure culled from package holiday experiences.

As a result, the NTE is now a major feature of economic life in Britain. In England and Wales alone the licensed trade employs around 1 million people, and creates 1 in 5 of all new jobs. Each year around £1 billion is invested in the sector, which is currently growing at a rate of 10 per cent per annum. The pub and club industry presently turns over twenty-three billion pounds, equivalent to 3 per cent of the UK Gross Domestic Product. There are now over 113,000 on-licensed premises, an increase of approximately 25 per cent over the past 25 years, and nationally, applications for new on-licences are currently running at over 5,000 a year. These increases and their subsequent impact upon the urban landscape must be viewed within the context of falling numbers of rural pubs, which are closing at a rate of six per week. It is clear that over the course of the last two decades the licensed trade has undergone both a sustained period of growth and a significant process of spatial reconfiguration.

The compression of liminal exploration into this economic sphere does not, as we have made clear, negate cultural experimentation. However, by the same token, nor is the increasing importance of leisure to the post-modern self (Rojek 1993) simply a reflection of the ongoing ‘cultural turn’. New entrants to the employment market now cut their teeth not on the increasingly irrelevant shop floor, but in bars and restaurants. Moreover, as Silverstone (forthcoming) makes clear, much of the NTE's labour force is part of the hidden economy, paid cash in hand; including large numbers of illegal immigrants and refugees employed to perform the more menial tasks associated with the sector. Engaging with this zone of abstract production has become increasingly important for consumers and employees alike, as the post Fordist re-invention of cities into sites of consumption and leisure gains pace. Further, these changes mark the explicit ‘economization of cultural practice’ (Crang 1997: 10), an entanglement that constitutes a restructuring from which there seems little chance of going back (O'Connor and Wynne 1996: 4), as activities that were previously marginal now become integral to the identities of contemporary cities.

The industrial city of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, featured the tight regulation and containment of working-class leisure in an effort to ensure that the interests of capital were not damaged, and that the sensibilities of the respectable classes were not offended (Thompson 1967; Cunningham 1980; Bailey 1978). Yet, as our discussion of the NTE clearly shows, in the post-industrial city constraint is neither practical nor desirable. The contemporary market is as strategically positioned at the very centre of urban social life (Slater and Tonkiss 2001: 176–81), as it had been in the industrial era, before city centre banks, building societies, shipping and insurance offices had metamorphosized into bars and pubs, and the quest for commercial advantage via a youth-orientated alcohol market constituted an invitation to transgress that has been readily embraced by traditionally hedonistic British Youth (Hollands 2000; Pearson 1983).

However, the recent facilitation, promotion and consequent expansion of local NTEs has proved to be a crucial innovation that has commodified traditional hedonism (Hobbs et al. 2003: 13–49), and it is important to note that such policies are underpinned not only by structural and economic demands, but also by a fundamental shift in the political-ideological paradigm of local government (Hall and Hubbard 1998; Hobbs et al. 2005). These are the forces behind the contemporary night-time ‘adventure’ (Simmel 1950: 243–6), with its commercially packaged customized protocols of consumption and interaction that enable both binge drinking, and the accompanying voyeuristic degradation ceremonies constituted by programmes such as Booze Britain 2.

Many British NTEs are situated in time-honoured locations, marking the site of liminal engagement for generations of night-time customers. These locales are the receptors of heavy investment by both business and local government, and as a consequence ‘spontaneous forms of communitas are converted into institutionalised structure’ (Turner 1974: 248). The city is a site that engenders and encourages transgression (Hayward 2004), and in the NTE it has created designated spaces enabling the routinization of liminal practices. As the makers of Booze Britain 1 and 2 know only too well, the built environment of the NTE, with its intense clusters of alcohol outlets, pattern liminality and create the impression of a discrete arena with identifiable parameters set aside and protected from normative, non-liminal social life (Hadfield 2006: ch 5; Turner 1974: 232). Consequently an analysis of the NTE that interprets what is essentially an economic phenomenon will be sadly lacking, for this is a post-industrial market par excellence, ‘increasingly seen as the locus of identity formation and the construction of meaningful social life through its provision of symbolic resources and the cultural elaboration of social difference and distinction (Slater and Tonkiss 2001: 176)

For the viewers of Booze Britain 2 as well as youthful night-time consumers, the night is a symbolic domain (Turner 1969: 80), devoid of the constraining and disciplinary characteristics of the domestic or employment realms. It is a place where the watchers as well as the watched are seduced by the spectacle of massed transgression (Ballard 1997: 180). From the comfort and safety of one's own armchair, the transgressive utility of normative space and normative consumption can be observed. Violence, vomit, vandalism and obscene behaviour test the boundaries, and after a frenetic struggle with an undermanned relief of police officers, who are captured wrestling heroically with foul mouthed youths in an attempt to restore the city centre to day-time levels of comportment, the boundaries are confirmed by a close up of a now recalcitrant youth in a police cell. These stage managed battles between the representatives of the state and violent youth make great copy for lazy TV journalists who in previous eras were obliged to set up their cameras at football grounds, or on seaside promenades at Bank Holiday weekends to be guaranteed visceral footage of fighting youths (Cohen 1972).

Conclusion: ‘Get it down you’

Booze Britain is back. The hugely popular documentary show exploring the alcohol-fuelled antics of young Brits from across the nation, returns to Bravo for a second exclusive series this month. Get it down you! The carnage of binge drinking in glorious Technicolor. (

The NTE has had a transformative influence upon British cities, and is integral to our society's shift from industrial to post-industrial economic development. Further, the numbers of young people flocking into these new centres of alcohol consumption are unprecedented (Hobbs et al. 2003; Home Affairs Committee 2005). The British government have embraced the NTE while simultaneously rejecting the inevitable consequences of its liminal allure (Room and Collins 1983), seeking instead to punish the routine transgression of its consumers (Prime Minister's Strategy Unit 2004: 69). Consequently, the cumulative impact of market forces is ignored in favour of the creation of a drink sodden folk devil (Hadfield 2006). Until the commencement of the 2001 general election campaign in 2000, there was a general reluctance on behalf of government agencies, and in particular the police, to acknowledge problems related to the NTE. However, Labour's re-election campaign coincided with the publication of figures relating to alcohol-related assaults uncovered by the 2000 British Crime Survey, which indicated that teenage males who frequently visit pubs and nightclubs and drink heavily are most at risk from violent assault (Budd 2003: Table 3.1).

Yet despite its powerful and costly insistence upon ‘evidence-based’ policymaking, the government continues an agenda of market led liberalization of the retailing of alcohol. While public discourse inevitably focuses on the vulnerability of the youngest age groups (IAS 2005: 3),9 Public health data suggests that we should be more worried about the longer-term prognosis (Academy of Medical Sciences 2004). This longer view shifts our attention from the immediate realities of youth violence and disorder, to the enduring impact of alcohol use on the wider population (Office for National Statistics 2005). Whilst the eventual consequences of the Licensing Act 2003 remain uncertain (Hadfield 2007), what is clear from the plethora of concern emanating from both government departments and professional bodies, is that problem drinking – binge or otherwise – is becoming increasingly normalized (Prime Minister's Strategy Unit 2004: 11). No longer the preserve of society's outcasts, the impact of problem drinking can fall anywhere, with up to 1.3 million children affected by parental alcohol problems (Prime Minister's Strategy Unit 2004: 14). However, beyond the realm of public health professionals and campaigners, the term ‘binge drinking’, as we suggest above, is seldom used to describe the drinking habits of any group other than young denizens of the NTE. Indeed, private ‘bingeing’ is rarely referred to at all, and is seldom linked with alcohol-associated diseases, with accidents in the home, or with privatized violence in the form of spousal or child abuse. For instance Budd's review of alcohol and violence, which highlighted 25 per cent of her British Crime Survey-derived sample as ‘domestic’, does not even use the term ‘binge drinker’. Likewise, from the publication of the Government's Alcohol Strategy Document onwards (Prime Minister's Strategy Unit 2001), we can see the use of the term as a remarkably pliant device to implicate a range of individuals perhaps more accurately described as, ‘Young people drunk and disorderly in public places’.

There is, then, a distinctly hypocritical attitude to booze in Britain. Despite the enormous societal cost of alcohol, the government continue to value the jobs, the associated urban regeneration, and of course the 7 billion pounds in taxation that it derives from the industry. Widespread international evidence has linked alcohol availability to numerous social harms, yet this evidence (in particular that relating to both the number and density of alcohol outlets, and to the elongation of opening hours), was notably absent from the government's strategy document and related publications (Hadfield 2006). When we consider this hypocrisy, we might also consider the ludicrous tainting of drunken kids as binge drinkers, and the reluctance to reflect too carefully upon the binge economy so readily embraced by successive central and local governments across Britain. Although the Strategy Document (Prime Minister's Strategy Unit 2004) suggested more education, working in partnership with the alcohol industry (including a stunning degree of self regulation), improved treatment facilities, and a clamp down on disorder in the NTE, as Room (2004) notes, these approaches have proven ineffective in reducing alcohol-related maladies, of which public drunkenness and its associated behaviours is merely the most vivid.

Currently it is the logic of the market that informs governmental policy on alcohol, and in this chaotic environment the binge drinker has emerged from a plethora of definitions to capture the nation's headlines. Bingeing is central to the spectacle of the NTE. It is a ‘form of self gratification which still embodies repression’ (Debord 1994: 38), and is marketed as integral to the liminal quest. Promotional tools and marketing strategies invite experiential transgression. The NTE's highly structured provision for hedonistic economic activity – of which binge drinking is a tangible product – has enabled a very particular negotiated order which is largely the creation of corporate forces with a deep and cynical understanding of the lure of liminality. Under the guise of ‘spectacular rebelliousness’ (Debord 1994), the arsenal of liminal symbols employed by commercial forces in the marketing of the ‘dream world’ (Williams 1982) of the NTE, embraces visual metaphors of overt sexuality, inebriation, and egoism (Caillois 1959: 123–6) – precisely the heady cocktail that makes Booze Britain 2 and its ilk such compelling viewing.


  • 1

    The proliferation of such environments has been described by Hadfield (2006: ch. 5) as constituting a shift from ‘high street to ‘street for getting high’’ (2006: 131)

  • 2

    There is, of course, nothing new about the monetary exploitation of liminality. As Eade and Sallnow (1991) show, monks and other entrepreneurs hyped the relics they had acquired (and occasionally stolen) for the power and profit that would accrue from a site becoming a major shrine. Pilgrimage, liminality and communitas were all sold, cynically, then as now. Sincere thanks to Tony Walter for bringing this important point to our attention.

  • 3

    ‘Blair: Binge Drinking is New British Disease’Daily Mail 20/5/04; ‘No Matter What You Do, You Will Not Stop People Binge Drinking’Guardian 7/02/04.

  • 4

    See Richardson and Budd (2003: 86 Appendix B).

  • 5

    For a detailed discussion of the problem of diversity in the NTE, see Hobbs et al. (2003: 269–73)

  • 6

    For an array of historical perspectives on British drinking culture see Coffey (1966); Harrison (1971); Gerritsen (2000); Greenaway (2003); Warner (2003).

  • 7

    With many of these viewers themselves consuming alcohol in the privacy of their own living rooms, we are reminded of the dangers of ‘passive drinking’ (Draft minutes of the European Commission's Working Group on Alcohol and Health, June 9 and 10 2004, Luxembourg), perhaps to be combined with some ‘private edgework’.

  • 8

    The Supply of Beer (Loan Ties, Licensed Premises and Wholesale Prices) Order 1989 and the Supply of Beer (Tied Estate) Order 1989. See also Monopolies and Merger Commission, The Supply of Beer, Cm. 651 (1989).

  • 9

    The total value of the alcohol industry's promotional activity in the UK is in excess of £500 million (Prime Minister's Strategy Unit 2003, see also IAS 2005), and research has shown that such advertising and marketing campaigns are directed at those at the younger end of the adult market (Hastings and MacFadyen 2000). Teenagers identify alcohol advertising as their favourite category of adverts, adverts that link alcohol consumption with sexual and social attainment (Dring and Hope 2001), and the consumption of alcohol now plays a major role within children's lifestyles in the UK (Office for National Statistics 2005).